Ask the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard the question "Where is music headed?" and he will answer in a characteristically humble way: "I don't know. I'm not a prophet, I'm a pianist. Like everybody at the moment, I see the world going very fast. No one knows where we're going, and there are many questions, but no answers. So let's be confident, let's be creative, let's be positive. And, above all, let's play together."
And playing together — not only in the sense of harmonious interaction but also in the sense of games — is a key concept for Aimard. Listening games, musical language games, games of time and space — that's how Aimard has imagined his Perspectives programs at Carnegie Hall this season. One of the programs, in fact, is called Programming Games and features the work of György Ligeti, the late Hungarian composer with whom Aimard had extremely close ties, plus other musical Magyars: Béla Bartók, György Kurtág, and Peter Eötvös. For good measure, Aimard has thrown in the work of two American composers: Clapping Music by New York's own Steve Reich and a couple of Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player piano.
"I wanted to look at the heritage of rhythm," explains Aimard. "This shows that music from Hungary is very much of the present. It's also a personal portrait, as this music has played such an important role in my life." One of the pieces performed on the concert, on May 10, will be Eötvös's Kosmos, originally written for piano solo, but to be tackled here by two pianists, Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich.
"The two instruments are very far from each other, so that the pianists may find themselves almost perfectly synchronized or completely out of synch," Aimard says. "This is a way of going from a single rhythm to complex rhythms, to create shifting games — which happens a lot with Reich and Ligeti."
The crème de la crème of this shifting process is Ligeti's rarely performed and somewhat outrageous Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, all tick-tocking one by one until they crescendo into a sonic rainstorm, then eventually run out of steam until the last one dies out. Listening to this piece is as profound an experience as it is perplexing — simultaneously silly and sublime.
"I love the piece because it is the key to understanding Ligeti's work," says Aimard. "It's strange, surrealistic, dangerously hyper-mechanical, but also cool-poetic. There's a sense of humor. At the beginning, the listener hears one layer, then different layers, then complex polyrhythms, then just a mass of sound in which you can't distinguish the polyrhythms. As a listener, you find yourself constantly changing. The idea is very simple, the result rich and complex. It's an incredibly original piece that creates a phenomenon Ligeti would integrate in his compositions in many ways." Aimard describes his adaptation of this remarkable piece as a "surprise."
"Ligeti was a fantastic creator with incredible intensity and independence," says Aimard. "I premiered many of his pieces, worked closely with him, recorded with him." Who can forget the daring recording on which Aimard paired Pygmy polyphony with the pianistic polyrhythms of Ligeti's concerto? On December 10, for a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, the pianist pairs the piece with Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales and the lurid tale of Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin. Of the concerto, Aimard lauds its "irresistible energy, imagination, density, and humor."
In a recital in Zankel Hall on December 11, Aimard offers a program that exemplifies his subtle analytic-historical thinking. Entitled A Study of a Study, the event will be a mosaic of 24 etudes by Ligeti, Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Bartók, and Debussy.
Why the etude? "With an etude, a composer focuses on a small technical dimension and develops a composition," observes Aimard. "So it's the type of piece that's great for making a big game of ambiguities and relationships between different styles."
Critical and creative juxtaposition, both enlightening and exhilarating, structures A Promenade in 88 Keys and 300 Years on April 1. "The goal here is not only to hear different kinds of music," says Aimard of this survey of the piano repertoire from Bach onward, "but to share reflections on this music step by step. It's a way of dealing with all of the mixing of cultures and overlapping of layers in musical history that's going on today."
The pianist takes his ideas to the edge in his last program, Collages-Montages on May 11, the most wildly experimental of the bunch.
"The collage has played an immense role in the plastic arts, especially during the Dada period," Aimard ruminates. "Music has done it much less, aside from works by Charles Ives, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and Luciano Berio. I love these games, so I intend to play with that. This is the last concert in my Perspectives, so I want to be extremely playful. I mean, how far can we play with these 'holy' masterpieces?"
Just imagine what kind of ten-year-old Aimard must have been, meticulously practicing Chopin mazurkas while blasting the music of Rameau, Wagner, and Varèse on three surrounding stereos, while curiously still focused on each of them.
Robert Hilferty is a frequent contributor to Playbill.